Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
During the Revolutionary War there were several attempts made to end the fighting. The first offer of peace, which came from the Continental Congress in the summer of 1775, made no mention of independence, but asserted the loyalty of the king's American subjects. It was George III's rejection of this so-called "Olive Branch petition" that led to the Declaration of Independence, after which time Congress refused to consider any peace agreement that did not include full independence for the United States. But as in all wars, the course of peace negotiations was ultimately determined by what happened on the battlefield. Therefore, it was not until after the victory at Yorktown that Britain finally proved willing to agree to grant American independence.
In this lesson students will consider the various peace attempts made by both sides during the Revolutionary War. By reading a series of documents and comparing them with what was happening militarily at the time, students will gain an understanding of how peace came when it did, and why it took the form that it did.
Although the atmosphere of America in the early 1770s was thick with denunciations of Great Britain, the actual outbreak of hostilities was deeply disturbing to most people on both sides of the Atlantic. Even many of those who were most determined to resist British taxes and trade restrictions still considered themselves loyal Englishmen, and even as late as 1776 advocates of independence remained in the minority in the Continental Congress. Meanwhile in England, the influential writer and politician Edmund Burke advised King George III that if only the colonies were restored their traditional liberties they would "cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance."
Thus in the early months of war, while Washington's army was besieging the British in Boston, the Continental Congress made one final effort to heal the relationship with the crown. The result was the so-called Olive Branch Petition, drafted by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, which assured the king that the members of Congress remained his loyal subjects, but asked him to remove the "irksome variety of artifices" which his ministers had imposed on the colonies. Although it was loudly denounced by some radicals in Congress—mostly from New England—it passed easily on July 8, 1775.
The Olive Branch Petition arrived in London early in August, but the king refused even to look at it, and two weeks later he issued a proclamation promising "to bring to condign punishment" all those involved in the rebellion. This proclamation dealt a severe blow to those in Congress who still hoped for reconciliation, and paved the way for a Declaration of Independence, which Congress approved on July 4, 1776.
The next offers of peace came from the British, who on two occasions—one in September 1776, the other in June 1778—proposed that the American colonies lay down their arms in return for guarantees from London that their autonomy would be respected. However, the Declaration of Independence had significantly upped the ante on the American side, so Congress brushed aside these proposals. Nothing, they informed the British negotiators, would satisfy them short of full independence. This, of course, was too much for George III to swallow, and the war continued.
In October 1781 the British army under Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. It should be noted that Britain's overall position in North America remained strong. British forces still occupied the vital ports of New York, Charleston and Savannah, and there seemed little chance that the Americans could force them out in the foreseeable future. However, the war had long been unpopular in England, and the king's ministers recognized that calls for new taxes in order to replace Cornwallis's army would bring howls of opposition from Parliament. The costs of attempting to suppress the rebellion had come to outweigh the benefits of doing so. Reluctantly, therefore, George III instructed his ministers to seek an end to the fighting.
Peace negotiations were held in Paris throughout 1782 and much of 1783, with separate treaties ultimately concluded between Great Britain and each of its enemies. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay represented the United States in these talks. In the final Treaty of Paris, concluded in September 1783, Great Britain formally recognized the independence of its former American colonies, with the Mississippi River as the new nation's western boundary. Canada, on the other hand, would remain British—and indeed was becoming more so as thousands of Loyalists in the United States fled there in the months after Yorktown.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Perhaps most importantly, study the interactive map that accompanies this lesson. Clicking on the numbered locations will produce pop-ups that explain in greater detail what happened at those particular sites, as well as providing links for more material, such as documents, maps, and detailed histories.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Letters and Diaries" which gives helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
In this activity students will be divided into four groups: Americans favoring reconciliation with England, Americans favoring complete independence from England, Britons favoring reconciliation with America, and Britons favoring the suppression of the revolution. Each group will read—preferably as homework—a document that lays out the case for that particular point of view. While reading, direct students to pay particular attention to the following questions, provided as a worksheet on page 1 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson:
In order to help students contextualize these documents, it may be useful to have them consult the interactive map. Specifically, students should examine the events of 1775 (the first five items on the map) to get a sense for the overall military situation in North America at the time.
Next, students will then engage in a panel discussion on whether reconciliation between Britain and America was possible or desirable. Students are to assume the role of their document's author during this panel discussion, speaking and acting as that person would. Each group should clearly present its side of the argument. Students may then question other positions about their beliefs in reconciliation. To conclude, the teacher should ask students, based on what they discussed, why the efforts at reconciliation ultimately failed.
The following documents come from the EDSITEment-reviewed resources Teaching American History and the Avalon Project at Yale Law School, or from the site "From Revolution to Reconstruction," which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Excerpted versions are available on pages 2-11 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson.
The refusal of the king to negotiate in 1775 led the Continental Congress to declare independence the following year. However, starting in that same year the British made two separate efforts to bring an end to the fighting. In this exercise, students will read documents about these peace feelers, in conjunction with the interactive map to remind them of how negotiations were then, as always, tied to what happened on the battlefield. The following documents are both located at Teaching American History, but excerpts are available on pages 12–18 of the Text Document:
After examining these readings, students will answer the following questions, available as worksheets on pages 14–15 and 17–18 of the Text Document:
Finally, students will read the 1783 Treaty of Paris and make a list of its terms. On the interactive map they will be able to click on the various locations listed on the treaty, and in so doing draw the postwar boundaries of the United States of America. The text of the treaty is located at the Avalon Project, but an excerpted version is available on pages 19-21 of the Text Document.
As they read, students should complete a worksheet (located on pages 21-22 of the Text Document) in which they summarize each of the terms of the treaty in their own words. When they are finished, students will be asked to write a brief essay indicating what they consider to be the three most important terms of the treaty and explaining their choices.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
An alternative method of assessment might be to divide the class into small groups, and have each one develop a thesis statement that encompasses all the various elements of this lesson. They should be given roughly 15 minutes to do this. Once they have done so, each group should write its thesis statement on the board, and as a class discuss which is the best, and why. The entire class could then be given a homework assignment to write an essay that defends the statement.
Teachers may wish to have their students view Benjamin West's painting "The Treaty of Paris". What is particularly interesting about this painting is that it is unfinished; it shows the American delegation—from left to right, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin—but because the British delegates refused to sit for the painting, West was unable to complete it. Some questions to consider while looking at this are:
The site Documents of Diplomatic History, (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, contains a link to a letter by George III lamenting the loss of Britain's North American colonies and reflecting on what it means for future British policy. This document might be useful in generating a class discussion about his predictions for the future of the British Empire, and whether or not they proved accurate.
3-4 class periods